Scene Partners

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 15, 2023

Dianne Wiest
Photo by Carol Rosegg
The set-up is almost as old as Hollywood itself: A woman announces to her family that she is abandoning her stultifying home life and is heading to California to be a glamorous and world-famous movie star. In John Caswell Jr.'s new play, Scene Partners, at the Vineyard Theatre, the woman happens to be 75 years old, and her family consists of an angry adult daughter with addiction issues. When the mother claims that within the year she will be playing queens, matriarchs, lawyers, and judges, the daughter scoffs, "Grandmothers at day rates, lunch ladies if you're lucky. And then it's wham-bam-mature-porno-for-you ma'am."

The aspiring matronly starlet in Scene Partners is Meryl Kowalski, who shares a first name with one of the greatest film stars of all time and a last name with Tennessee Williams's Stanley, one of the greatest dramatic characters ever. Although the chances of making it big in Hollywood are infinitesimal at best, as performed by Dianne Wiest, you may be inclined to believe it when her Meryl proclaims she will be an international celebrity within a year. Wiest is radiant and exudes endearing coquettishness even though she spends most of the play wearing a frumpy housedress and a drab and unflattering raincoat. She is marvelously touching as a woman who wants to begin life as a septuagenarian.

The initial conceit is tantalizing, but Caswell's play is ultimately wearisome as it spins further and further into dizzying absurdism. Set in 1985, the episodic and dreamlike scenes recall a modern-day Alice in Wonderland as Meryl descends via a dumbwaiter into a new-age counseling session, boards a train with a Russian conductor who morphs into her despised dead husband (Eric Berryman, very good in a number of different parts), and holds a smarmy film producer (Josh Hamilton, also terrific) at gunpoint in order get her big break.

Miraculously, Meryl takes Hollywood by storm and without having to rely on a use of firearms. Having just a few acting classes under her belt (Carmen M. Herlihy and Kristen Sieh play fellow acting students and are convincing in their various roles), a big studio wants to film Meryl's story with her in the lead. She is destined, so it seems, to be a star.

It appears that the only person in Hollywood who thinks Meryl may be imagining this extraordinary ascent is her sister Charlize (Johanna Day, providing emotional grounding). Charlize has concerns about her older sister's health and insists that she attend to her physical and mental health.

A dark undercurrent flows through the play, and Rachel Chavkin's direction balances grim intimations about devastating medical diagnoses with a cartoonish quality that pervades many of the scenes. (Riccardo Hernández's nimble scenic design, Brenda Abbandandolo's 1980s-inspired costumes, Alan C. Edwards' hallucinatory lighting, and Leah Gelpe's giddy sound design add to the chimerical impression.) Indeed, the play's demented world, which is presumably a manifestation of the character's unstable mind, presents a continuing barrage of film and television allusions, video projections (designed effectively by David Bengali), and familiar theatre tropes.

In its madcap presentation of a woman negotiating her way through a topsy-turvy world, Scene Partners is reminiscent of Craig Lucas's Reckless and, especially, Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz. Unlike those plays, which culminate in devastating revelations, the zany reveries do not effectively coalesce in Caswell's play. This may be the point, but the final result is dispiriting rather than intellectually and emotionally stimulating.

There are also multiple references to shifting landscapes and shifting truths, but in the end, as the film producer explains, "The story of Meryl shifts under your feet." But even with a masterful, star performance by Dianne Wiest, lacking dramaturgically solid moorings, Scene Partners offers a regrettably alienating experience.

Scene Partners
Through December 17, 2023
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: